Home Science Education Fight Psychology: “I Cud’a Been a Contenda!”

Fight Psychology: “I Cud’a Been a Contenda!”


A collaboration between Paulie “Gloves” Gavoni and Dr. Alex Edmonds.

“I cud’a been a contenda!” Well, the fact is that you could have been! And barring an injury or medical condition, you can be!! The behavioral sciences tell us that becoming a “winner” typically does not occur for two primary reasons—a fighter can’t do it (skill deficit) or a fighter won’t do it (motivational deficit). On one hand, there are many fighters out there with a tremendous amount of physical talent and skill sets, but they lack motivation—the motivation to train hard and ultimately, become a winner. These fighters are often referred to as “journeymen,” or what we call “cud’ve been contendas!” On the other hand, there are many fighters out there with less physical gifts and skill sets, but are highly motivated to train hard and make the best of their capabilities. Just to be clear—becoming a “winner” doesn’t mean going undefeated, becoming a professional fighter, or even having a winning record. Becoming a winner basically means that you’ve taken all your personal psychological and physical abilities and pushed them to the limits. And pushing these limits is what it would take to achieve a high-level of success based on your own personal capabilities, not compared to anyone else. If you give 100%, then regardless of records, contracts etc, you are indeed a winner!

While this article will take a look at increasing skills, a brief discussion about motivation is warranted. Whether you realize it or not, the state of your mind is the starting point in determining your future as a contender. A strong theory that can explain the relationship between your training regiments and becoming a winner is the expectancy-value theory. In basic terms, combining the expectations you have for yourself as a fighter and what value you place on achieving those expectations sums up this theory. So take a moment and ask yourself these two important questions—what do I expect of myself as a fighter, in six months, one year, and two years? And what value do you place on achieving these expectations? Are they for accolades, money and trophies, increased social acceptance, or is it for something internal to you (I want to win to prove to myself I can do it?)? One way to get a better understanding of your own mind is to journal, take notes, and write down your goals. Gaining a better understanding of yourself and your mind is en route to becoming a better fighter. Period. And you’ll find as you create goals, refine your expectations, and understand your values; your motivation will exponentially increase. Motivation is the critical element in terms of modifying your behavior. Now, how will you direct your behavior? In other words, what skills sets will you pursue and how will you obtain those skills? If we fall back on the expectancy-value theory, we can apply it towards coaching as well. If you expect your coach can provide you the desired skill sets, and you value the skills being taught, you will be motivated to follow the coach’s instructions. For this reason, it’s essential that coaches employ specific instructional techniques to shape a fighter’s performance.

Let’s talk about training regiments and the importance of practice from a coach’s perspective. Practice basically means rehearsing and engaging in all the aspects of fighting, again and again, in a specific way to master the craft. However, not all practice is created equal. Remember the saying, “Practice doesn’t make perfect…perfect practice makes perfect.” This statement is not far from the truth.

The ultimate goal of any fighter should to become an expert at his or her craft. Therefore, that fighter should be consistently engaged in what we call deliberate practice. Deliberate practice is what researchers in the sport sciences believe differentiates the experts from non-expert. The general premise of deliberate practice is to break down the specific skill of striking, for example, and understand all its various aspects. These aspects are broken down into chunks, if you will, and practiced over and over until a certain level of proficiency is achieved. Over the course of this practice a constant stream of reinforcing and corrective feedback from a good coach is required. In addition, it’s essential that the practice of these skills is progressively made more challenging over time. Even so, engaging in deliberate practice is easier said than done.

Even if a coach does not understand all the science behind training, great coaches intuitively know how to progressively build skill sets that will generalize or extend into a real fight. Fighters, it is important to know what skills a great coach possesses so that you know you’re being provided the best instruction possible. Good and well-meaning coaches may “tell” their fighters to do something but are not rewarded with the desired performance during the fight. We use the word “tell” instead of “teach,” because the real measure of being taught is if the fighter learned; consequently, the measure of learning is the fighter performing the said skill in the fight. If the fighter did not perform, they may have been “told” the right thing to do, but they were never coached to fluency. Great coaches know that teaching involves a process of telling, modeling, observing, and providing continuous feedback. A process of reinforcing incremental steps towards a desired behavior, or what the behavioral sciences call “shaping.” Much like a sculptor shapes clay into a masterpiece, so does the great coach shape a fighter’s skills.

Shaping is essentially part of good coaching, and all good coaches use the process of shaping. Much like a football coach who runs one play in practice over and over again knowing that this is what it takes to execute the play adequately during the game, a great MMA striking coach makes a fighter practice a combo many times in order for him or her to utilize the combo effectively in a fight. Below, the acronym C-O-A-C-H is used to illustrate the necessary elements of good coaching. Fighters, look for these behaviors in your coach.

Create skill set goals and structure a variety of systems and drills to teach these skills. Skills should be taught in steps using great detail with a variety of drills structured to allow for deliberate practice.

Observe the fighter under different conditions. In other words, coaches should observe the fighter shadow boxing, hitting the bag, sparring, etc.

Affirmative and detailed feedback should be provided to the fighter when performing the skill (or parts of the skill) as intended. Coaches should strive to use a strength based perspective for emerging skills with the rule of thumb being recognize what the fighter is doing right twice as much as compared with what they are not doing. For example, “Johnny, you pivoted nicely on your back foot when you threw your cross, this gives you greater range and increases your punching power.”

Corrective and detailed feedback should be provided to the fighter when they are not performing the skill as intended. Corrective feedback entails giving the fighter feedback of where their performance is in regards to a skillset goal, and information on what they need to do to meet that goal. For example, “Johnny, you pivoted your back foot nicely when you threw the cross. Now remember to keep your left hand high to avoid being caught with a counter.” Overcorrection techniques should be incorporated to allow for fighters to improve a specific part of a skill set. For example, if a fighter kept dropping his right hand when throwing the hook, cross, hook combo, the coach might require that the fighter throw the hook over and over again with focus on keeping the right hand up (i.e. deliberate practice) rather than repeating the entire combo.

Help the fighter generalize skills learned outside of the cage or ring into the fight by using a continuous improvement process through observation and feedback until the skill set goals are met.

While the above process illustrates elements of good coaching, good coaches recognize that these elements need to be applied differently given a fighters experience and current skill set. The goal of creating these structures is to allow the fighters to perform high repetition and deliberate practice to create automaticity (reacting without thought) or “good habits” in regards to the targeted skills. Good coaches know that just throwing a fighter into the ring or cage without some level of proficiency will lead the fighter to fall back on old habits as the new skill has not been developed enough to be effective; as a result, it may reduce the fighters motivation to utilize a new or emerging skill set, or even reduce a fighter’s motivation to follow the coaches instruction as attempting the skill set may be extremely punishing (e.g., a fighter gets knocked out!). The coach’s job is to increase the fighter’s proficiency enough in the targeted skill so that he or she is more likely to perform it during sparring. This increases the likelihood that when they spar, the targeted skill will be met with reinforcement…in other words, the fighter will want to continue using the skill because it worked!

Remember fighters, understanding how to tap into your motivation is a key aspect of becoming better at your craft. You can do this by defining what your expectations are as a fighter and what value you place on these expectations. It helps to journal your thoughts, progress, and goals while on this journey. Deliberate practice is vital and most effective when applied using “shaping” to allow for progressive development and sustainability of skills that will more likely generalize into the fight. Finally, remember that feedback is essential for improvement. As a fighter, you must be provided with information that tells you where you are in relation to a targeted skill set, and what you must do to reach that goal. If your coach is providing you with the psychological and behavioral strategies addressed in this article, thank them and know that you “cud be a contenda!”